What's a GPT?
Last Web page update: 4/18/2022, referencing GPT fdisk version 1.0.9
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Note: This page is part of the documentation for my GPT fdisk program.
In 2022, the vast majority of new x86-64 (aka AMD64 or X64) computers in stores come with GPT disks. This was not always the case, though, and it's not true of all disks even today. If you've been using computers since before about 2011, or if you've ever used a removable disk, you may be familiar with older disk partitioning schemes — or perhaps you're not familiar with them, and don't understand why older computers or removable disks are partitioned in a different way from internal modern disks. This page should help elucidate these differences, and why the shift to GPT in the arly 2010s was so important.
MBR, Its Annoyances, and Its Limits
Since the earliest hard disks for x86 computers, these disks have been
divided into one or more partitions using a partitioning scheme that has,
through the ages, gone by several names, such as MS-DOS disklabels,
BIOS partitions, and Master Boot Record (MBR) partitions.
This partitioning system squeezed both a boot loader and partition table
into the first sector of the disk. It was simple, but by whatever name, the
MBR partitioning scheme has several characteristics that have been
limitations or annoyances:
- The MBR system originally provided for only four partitions. As a
workaround, one of these original (or primary) partitions can
be set aside (and is then known as an extended partition) to
hold an arbitrary number of logical partitions. This
configuration is awkward and can lead to problems, since some OSes can
only boot from primary partitions and since it's not easy to convert a
partition from one type to another. (The FixParts program, which
is part of the GPT fdisk family, can convert between primary and
logical types, within certain limits.)
- MBR partitions include one-byte partition type codes to help OSes
identify the partitions' purpose. The single byte has proven somewhat
limiting, and there are occasional collisions — a single code with
an ambiguous meaning, such as 0x82, which can refer to either Linux
swap space or a Solaris disklabel.
- The MBR scheme originally employed cylinder/head/sector (CHS) addresses
to identify partitions' locations. This feature can lead to problems
because different BIOSes or OSes can interpret a disk's CHS geometry in
different ways. The CHS scheme also tops out at a maximum disk size of
about 8 GiB. In part to work around this limitation, MBR has been
extended to use 32-bit logical block addressing (LBA), but using two
systems itself introduces the opportunity for problems, such as
mismatched CHS and LBA definitions for a single partition. In practice,
modern OSes seem to mostly ignore the CHS values, and they must
ignore the CHS values on partitions that begin or end beyond the 8 GiB
- In conjunction with the near-universal sector size of 512 bytes, the
32-bit LBA pointers used by MBR partitions impose a 2 TiB limit on disk
and partition size. This limit, unlike the earlier 8 GiB limit of CHS,
is not easily overcome by a simple extension to MBR; there simply isn't
space left in the size allocated to MBR data structures. With 20 TB
drives available now and even larger devices configurable using RAID
technologies, this problem is a very serious one and will only become
more serious with time.
- MBR partitions are susceptible to damage. The primary partition table
is stored entirely within the first sector of the disk, so if it's
destroyed or damaged, it will be hard to recover the disk's partitions.
Logical partitions are stored in a linked list data structure that's
scattered over the extended partition, so if a single link is broken,
access to the remaining logical partitions will be lost.
There are techniques you can use to extend
the life of MBR; however, these methods are stop-gaps at best. Sooner
or later, you'll find MBR to be inadequate as you move to larger and larger
GPT to the Rescue
MBR's clear successor is GPT. This new partitioning scheme fixes many of
- In its most common configuration, GPT supports up to 128 partitions, so
there's no need for extended or logical partitions. In case needs
change, GPT data structures permit larger partition table sizes,
although in practice few tools enable users to adjust this parameter.
(GPT fdisk does, though.)
- GPT provides a 128-bit (16-byte) partition type code in the form of a
GUID, compared to MBR's 1-byte type code. In theory, this gives plenty
of room for lots of unique partition types. Unfortunately, in practice
there are already a few collisions, although the most important of these
has been corrected. (Linux and Windows used to share the same type code
for their filesystem partitions, but a new Linux-specific code is now
available.) To supplement the type code, GPT supports a plain-text name
for each partition.
- GPT knows nothing about CHS geometries and it uses 64-bit sector
pointers, so 2 TiB drives are puny compared to the total supported disk
size of GPT.
- GPT adds CRC32 checksums to its data structures and stores those
structures twice on the disk — once at the start of the disk and
again at the end. These measures help protect the system against
accidental damage caused by carelessness or disk errors.
Unfortunately, GPT is not without its problems. These mainly relate to
compatibility, such as:
- Older OSes have no or limited GPT support. For instance,
Windows only supports GPT at all on Windows Server 2003, the 64-bit (but not
the 32-bit) version of Windows XP, Windows Vista, and later. To the best of
my knowledge, no version of Windows officially supports booting from a GPT
disk in BIOS mode, although there are hacks and workarounds for this problem
available. Because the vast majority of new desktop and laptop computers
sold since 2011 support EFI-mode booting, this limitation is a minor one in
- Linux has long supported GPT, but boot support depends on the boot
loader. As a practical matter, booting from a GPT disk in BIOS mode is usually possible, but there can be system-specific quirks, as described in Legacy BIOS Issues with GPT. As with Windows, booting in EFI mode is seldom a problem with modern Linux distributions, although older versions of Linux boot loaders were sometimes temperamental.
- Intel-based Macs use GPT by default, so GPT works well with them;
however, Intel-based Macs that dual boot sometimes use a hybrid MBR, which is a GPT variant that is an ugly
and dangerous hack.
- Specialized devices like automotive dashcams, TVs, and digital cameras often don't recognize GPT. For the broadest possible compatibility, you should continue to use MBR on USB flash drives, SD cards, and other removable media that you expect to use with such devices.
To protect GPT disks against errant older disk tools, GPT keeps an MBR
partition table on the first sector of the disk. This MBR contains a single
disk-spanning partition of type 0xEE, which makes older tools think the
disk is in use by an unknown OS. Some tools take advantage of this feature
to create a hybrid MBR configuration, in which
some partitions are accessible via both GPT and MBR definitions. Although
this is non-standard, awkward, delicate, and downright dangerous, it can
help make the transition from MBR to GPT easier by providing a workaround
for OSes that don't understand GPT.
In addition to the protective MBR, GPT features two main types of data
structure, each of which is stored on the disk twice:
- The GPT headers contain disk meta-data — information on the
locations of the partition tables, the disk GUID, and so on. No actual
partitions are defined in the headers, though. Each disk has two
headers, a main header and a backup header. If one is damaged, you can
use the other to recover the damaged one.
- Just as there are two headers, there are two partition tables.
These should be byte-for-byte identical to one another, unlike the
headers, which vary because they need to point to each other and to
their own partition tables.
Because of the hard 2 TiB limit of MBR partitions, chances are you'll be
forced to switch to GPT for at least some disks in the not-too-distant
future, assuming you haven't yet done so. MBR is likely to remain useful on
smaller devices, such as USB flash drives, for years to come. In 2022, many
older x86 and x86-64 PCs still use MBR-partitioned disks, although as noted
earlier, UEFI-based PCs are now the standard for new computers. If an OS
boots in EFI mode, chances are its disks use GPT.
Go on to "Working Around MBR's
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